We are only in Week 3 of the NFL season, but the primetime schedule for the season has already been ravaged by starting quarterback injuries (and the retirement of Andrew Luck). This can be mitigated to some extent with Sunday games via flex scheduling, but when it affects Thursday Night Football or Monday Night Football it is a real drag.
With Thursday Night Football, they are probably stuck with what they've got, but it really doesn't need to be like this on Mondays. Last season, for example, there was flex scheduling for a select number of late-season Saturday night NFL games. ESPN has almost assuredly discussed the possibility of flex scheduling Monday Night Football in the future with the NFL; it would be negligent for them not to have. It is something to keep an eye out for in future live rights; ESPN's rights expire after 2021, a year before everyone else's.
The mitigating factor as far as Monday night games are concerned is that hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of people make travel plans for NFL games months in advance. You can't just treat the most ardent customers like ants and expect to keep them, and shifting to a Saturday versus a Monday is certainly easier because families and friend groups by and large plan trips for the whole weekend.
Nevertheless, there's got to be a way. What if, for example, there were parameters for flex scheduling Monday Night Football Weeks 10-16, but ESPN had to commit six weeks in advance? While six weeks is an eternity in the NFL and ESPN would still be at the mercy of QB injuries or teams' trains careening off the tracks, it would be an improvement from the status quo and give travelers ample time to adjust their plans. In this proposal, ESPN would not be able to flex a team into Monday Night Football more than once.
Nevertheless, this would also throw a wrench into what happens with the other networks. Right now, Fox and CBS are able to protect up to five games each from flex scheduling, and the way NBC's Sunday Night flexes work is that they are typically selected about 12 days in advance -- what would happen if ESPN wants something six weeks out that NBC would have wanted for its marquee primetime game?
Yes, ESPN currently pays $1.9 billion for its NFL package, substantially more than anyone else. However, that rights fee is an investment for ESPN to get affiliate fees from cable and satellite (and now OTT bundle) distributors that approaches $10/month when ESPN2 is also factored in. They also get wall-to-wall highlights rights. The broadcast networks are in about 35 million more homes and thus attract wider audiences.
This is a roundabout way of saying they would have to figure out a way for Fox, CBS, and NBC to have robust protections. You can't fill one hole by creating another; the late Sunday afternoon window that alternates between Fox and CBS is a marquee viewing destination for the league, as is Sunday Night Football on NBC, which has been the number one TV show in primetime for eight straight years. Perhaps certain, select games could be determined before the season as potential flexes into Monday night, similarly to the aforementioned late-season Saturday flexes were last season.
To be sure, even this proposal wouldn't fix the ugliest game on the Monday Night Football slate -- Dolphins vs. Steelers in Week 8, which is about as bad a game as you can think of at this point. Still, this has to be something that can be figured out. Even if ESPN isn't getting the best games on Monday Night Football late in the season, there should be systems in place to ensure that they do not get the worst.